The NHS in the UK has reported that an innovative capsule sponge test could effectively diagnose Barrett’s oesophagus, a precursor to oesophageal cancer, in a trial.

The trial has demonstrated the test’s ability to reduce the need for invasive endoscopies among thousands of low-risk patients.

More than 8,500 subjects were tested using the capsule sponge test during the NHS pilot.

The evaluation revealed that nearly eight-in-ten patients who completed the test were discharged without requiring further testing.

This has significantly increased the availability of endoscopy services for people at increased risk or those needing urgent assessments for oesophageal cancer.

The new test is administered by letting patients swallow a small, capsule-shaped device containing a sponge that collects cell samples from the oesophagus.

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The sponge is then extracted via a string, allowing for analysis without the need for sedation.

Traditionally, Barrett’s oesophagus is diagnosed through an endoscopy, which is more invasive and requires a referral to a specialist.

Patient feedback has been positive, with 94% reporting mild or no pain and many indicating they would recommend the test to others.

The pilot encompassed 30 hospital sites across 17 areas in England including Manchester, London, Plymouth, Kent and Cumbria.

The capsule sponge test was found to be a cost-efficient option, saving approximately £400 ($507m) per patient versus endoscopy-only diagnosis, and also showed a high prevalence of Barrett’s oesophagus in patients with positive test results.

As of January 2024, approximately 50% of 368 patients who received a positive result from the capsule sponge test have been confirmed to have Barrett’s oesophagus.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients – they can conveniently fit the test into their day and it can often replace the need for an endoscopy, while also helping to reduce waiting lists by freeing up staff and resources.”